Reverend John Cotton: Puritan Reformist

John Cotton was a clergymen from England who moved to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1633.

John Cotton’s Early Life:

Cotton was born on December 4, 1585, in Derby, England to Rowland Cotton, a lawyer, and Mary Hubert. He attended Derby School before enrolling in Trinity College in Cambridge at age 13.

Cotton earned his first degree in 1603 and won a scholarship to nearby Emmanuel College, a heavily Puritan college, where he earned his M.A. in 1606. He continued his studies at Emmanuel College until 1612, working as a tutor, head lecturer and then as dean.

In 1612, he left the college to become the minister at St. Botolph’s Church in Boston, Lincolnshire. He officially earned his Bachelor of Divinity in 1613, when the required seven-year-wait after earning his Masters was up.

His reputation as a minister at the this point had made him one of the most prominent Puritan preachers in England. In July of 1613, Cotton married Elizabeth Horrocks in Balsham, Cambridgeshire. The couple did not have any children.

John Cotton’s Tenure at St. Botolph’s:

During first few years at St. Botolph’s church, Cotton met Anne Hutchinson and her husband William. The Hutchinsons had heard of Cotton’s reputation as a preacher and attended one of his services. Anne was instantly mesmerized and she and Cotton quickly formed a mentor-type relationship.

St. Botolph's Church, Boston, England, print circa 1890-1900

St. Botolph’s Church, Boston, England, print circa 1890-1900

In 1615, Cotton made a number of changes at St. Botolph’s, introducing a Congregational system of worship, banning genuflection and surplices and altering Anglican liturgy, according to the book The Life of John Cotton:

“After John Cotton had spent three years in Boston, his deep and devout studies brought him to a solemn conviction, that there were many antiquated corruptions yet left unreformed in the national Church, with the practice of which he could not comply. From this time, he ceased to conform strictly to the Church of England, though he never voluntarily renounced its communion.”

In April of 1630, Cotton preached his famous farewell sermon, “God’s Promise to His Plantation” for John Winthrop and the Massachusetts Bay Company at the dock before they sailed for the New World. Winthrop tried to woo Cotton and asked him to come with them but Cotton declined.

During the farewell sermon, Cotton told the company that their mission was holy and that they should try to convert the Native-Americans in North America to Christianity by suggesting they “Feed them with your spirituals…make them partakers of your precious faith.” The fleet then set sail and Cotton returned to St. Botolph’s.

In 1631, Cotton and his wife contracted malaria, which was common in the marshy Fens of Lincolnshire due to the overabundance of mosquitoes. Cotton took a leave of absence and the couple moved to a hospital where, over the course of a year, John Cotton slowly recovered but his wife died.

On April 25, 1632, Cotton married again, to a widowed mother named Sarah Hawkridge Story. By this time, Cotton’s unconventional and innovative ideas had often gotten him into trouble and things finally came to a head, according to the book American Jezebel:

“Despite his deeply conservative tendencies, Cotton’s theological inclinations drew him to preach dangerous things, formenting dissent. In England his unorthodoxy prompted church authorities to investigate him repeatedly. Eventually they called him to the Court of High Commission in London for questioning by the archbishop, as Anne’s [Hutchinson] father had been summoned a generation earlier. Unlike Francis Marbury, however, Cotton avoided imprisonment. He went into hiding and fled to America, where the ripples of the stones he dropped in his sermons had now brought Massachusetts to the brink of civil war.”

John Cotton In Hiding:

While in hiding, Cotton sent a letter to his wife explaining why he couldn’t see her, according to his letter sent on October 3, 1632:

“Dear & c, If our heavenly father be pleased to make our yoke more heavy than we did so soon expect, remember I pray thee what we have heard, that our heavenly husband the lord Jesus, when he 1st called us to fellowship with himself, called us into his condition, to deny ourselves, and to take up our cross daily, to follow him. And truly, tho’ this cup be brackish at the first; yet a cup of God’s mingling is doubtless sweet at the bottom, to such as have learned to make it their greatest happiness to partake with Christ, as in his glory, so in the way that leadeth to it. Where I am for the present, I am very fitly and welcomely accommodated; I thank God: so as I see here I might rest desired enough till my friends at home shall direct further. They desire also to see thee here, but I think it not safe yet, till we see how God will deal with our neighbors at home: for if you should now travel this way, I fear you will be watched and dogged at the heels. But I hope shortly God will make way for thy safe coming. The Lord shall watch over you all for good, and reveal himself in the guidance of all our affairs. So with my love to thee, as myself, I rest; desirous of thy rest and peace in him. J.C.”

The couple finally reunited six weeks later but had to remain in hiding. Cotton briefly considered fleeing to Holland, where a number of English Puritan ministers had already settled, but eventually decided to go the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

John Cotton and the Massachusetts Bay Colony:

Cotton finally made his escape to the Massachusetts Bay Colony through an invitation by John Winthrop, who had been informed of Cotton’s troubles and once again hoped to convince him to come to the New World, according to the book American Jezebel:

“News of his [John Cotton] predicament reached John Winthrop. Hoping to swell the colony, the governor wrote at once to invite the minister to Massachusetts. This invitation made up Cotton’s mind. He wrote to Bishop Williams on May 7, 1633, ‘I see neither my bodily health, nor the peace of the church [of St. Botoloph’s], will now stand my continuance there…The Lord, who began a year or two ago to suspend, after a sort, my ministry from that place by a long and sore sickness, the dregs whereof still hang about me, doth now put a farther necessity upon me wholly to lay down my ministry there, and freely to resign.’ Before daybreak one morning in early June 1633, Cotton and his wife and her daughter were rowed from the Norfolk Downs out to the Griffin. Another noted Puritan divine, Thomas Hooker, who had also studied at Cambridge, was on board the ship as well. Commenting on this confluence, their colleague Thomas Shepard said, ‘I saw the Lord departing from England when Mr. Hooker & Mr. Cotton were gone’… During the eight-week voyage, Sarah Cotton gave birth to her forty-eight-year-old husband’s first child, a healthy boy they named Seaborn. To John Cotton, this happy event was a sign from God that he was pleased with their ocean crossing.”

Cotton and his family safely arrived in the New World on September 3, 1633. His reputation preceded him when he arrived and was welcomed with open arms.

Cotton was awarded the most important job in the biggest church in the colony, the First Church of Boston.

Pleased with the colony, Cotton wrote to his friends and colleagues in England and urged them to emigrate to the colony. He suggested that if they remained in England it would lead them to corruption.

In successfully luring Cotton to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Winthrop also lured Anne Hutchinson, who felt lost without her mentor.

Just a year after Cotton fled for the colony, Hutchinson and her husband packed up their family and followed suit.

On September 18, 1634 when Anne Hutchinson and her family arrived in Boston, Cotton was waiting at the dock for her, and the two renewed their spiritual collaboration, according to the book The Antinomian Controversy, 1636-1638:

“It may have been from Cotton that Mrs. Hutchinson learned to question the significance of the ‘law’ and the ‘convenant of works.’ He may also have encouraged her to conceive of the Holy Spirit as ‘indwelling’ in the elect saint. Once they reached New England she and Cotton shared the same dissatisfaction with the spirituality of the colonists. Many of these people seemed to think that ‘affliction of the Spirit’ and ‘restraining from all known evil’ were the signs of ‘saving Union, or Communion’ with Christ. Together, the minister and the lay woman challenged this reasoning, reminding those who used it that the performance of moral duties was unrelated to divine mercy. To think otherwise, the two warned, was to proceed in the way of ‘works’ and not of ‘free grace.’ Looking back on the moment when he and Mrs. Hutchinson were collaborators, Cotton remembered the good consequences of his message: ‘And many whose spiritual estates were not so safely layed, yet where hereby helped and awakened to discover their sandy foundations, and to seek for better establishment in Christ…”

Hutchinson would later cause great problems for Winthrop in the colony when she began to challenge the Puritan’s leadership.

The Roger Williams Affair:

Cotton became involved in the Roger Williams affair in 1635. Williams was a separatist minister who became the minister in Salem, Massachusetts in 1634.

Williams urged his followers to separate themselves from the Anglican Church as much as possible, spurring local magistrate, John Endicott, to remove the cross from the England flag on the grounds that it was a symbol of idolatry.

For his actions, Endicott was barred from the magistracy for a year in May of 1635. Two months later, when Salem petitioned the Massachusetts Bay Colony for additional land, the petition was denied on the grounds that the radical Williams was still the minister in Salem.

As a result, Williams was banished from the colony in October of 1635. Cotton had little to do with the banishment but he wrote to Williams and explained he was banished because his beliefs disturbed “the peace of the church and state.” Williams blamed Cotton for his banishment and stated Cotton was the chief spokesman for the colony and the source of his problems.

After Williams learned he was about to be sent back to England, he hastily fled Salem to live with the Narraganset tribe in January of 1636. Cotton officially visited Salem in 1636 in an attempt to make peace and delivered a sermon that warned of the dangers of Williams’ separatist ideas.

In 1644, while in England attempting to secure a charter for Rhode Island, Williams began a pamphlet war with Cotton, starting with the publication of his pamphlet, The Bloody Tenant of Persecution, during which, they both published many replies and debated their ideas of religion and tolerance at length.

The Antinomian Controversy:

Only a few years after his arrival, in October of 1636, Cotton was swept up in the Antinomian Controversy, a religious and political controversy which directly involved Cotton’s protege, Anne Hutchinson, as well as her brother-in-law Reverend John Wheelwright and the governor of the colony, Henry Vane.

These “Antinomians,” as they were called, criticized the colony’s ministers for preaching a covenant of works, which is the agreement between God and Adam in which Adam was promised eternal life in exchange for his obedience, and instead advocated the free grace theology preached by Cotton, which suggests that followers receive eternal life the moment they believe in Jesus Christ as their savior.

When Cotton invited Wheelwright to speak at his church in January of 1637, his sermon stirred up trouble and within a few months Wheelwright was accused of sedition and contempt of the court but was never sentenced.

After Vane was defeated by Winthrop in the election of 1637, Vane left for England and never returned.

Then in November of that same year, Wheelwright was banished and Hutchinson was brought to trial on charges of sedition.

Anne Hutchinson on Trial, illustration by Edwin Austin Abbey, circa 1901

Anne Hutchinson on Trial, illustration by Edwin Austin Abbey, circa 1901

Cotton’s role in the controversy is complicated because although he originally supported Hutchinson and Wheelwright and they both cited him as the inspiration behind their beliefs, Cotton eventually distanced himself from them and conceded his own beliefs at the urging of his fellow ministers, according to the book American Jezebel:

“John Cotton saw that his disciple [Anne Hutchinson] was doomed. As if in a flash, he saw clearly what before had been obscure: she was too proud, too sure of her own election. He remembered worrying on occasion that she strengthened her faith through private meditations, apart from the public ministry, and that she was more censorious of others than a servant of God should be….But the ministers were not entirely surprised by Cotton’s shift. Nine weeks earlier, in late August, they had reconciled with him. At the Religious Synod in Cambridge, at private meetings of which Hutchinson was unaware, they had persuaded Cotton to abandon his grievances. Near the end of the synod, at which the ministers had condemned eighty-two errors, there were only five points remaining between Cotton and Wheelwright and the rest. In a spirit of reconciliation, Cotton had conceded on these. Wheelwright’s refusal to concede had led to his banishment, while Cotton’s compromises had brought him back into communion with most of his colleagues.”

Wheelwright was banished in 1637 and Hutchinson was banished the following year, in March of 1638, thus bringing the Antinomnian Controversy to an end, Despite her banishment, Winthrop and Cotton still kept tabs on Hutchinson after she fled for Rhode Island.

In May of 1638, when Hutchinson went into labor in Rhode Island and gave birth to a hydatidiform mole, a mass of tissue that is usually the result of sperm fertilizing a blighted egg, Winthrop wrote to Hutchinson’s doctor to find out more about it and both he and Cotton gleefully reported the unfortunate birth to their followers.

In his sermon, Cotton stated the birth defect “might signify her [Hutchinson’s] error in denying inherent righteousness” and suggested it was a punishment from God for her crimes.

John Cotton’s Later Career:

Cotton’s life got a little easier after the Antinomian Controversy ended in 1638, according The Life of John Cotton:

“After his troubles in connection with Mrs. Hutchinson’s disturbances, which so afflicted him that he seriously meditated a retreat from the colony, Mr. Cotton passed the rest of his days in peace and high esteem.”

In 1642, he declined an invitation from England to represent New England’s interest at the Westminster Assembly in London. In fact, after fleeing England, Cotton never returned to his home country again.

In 1648, Cotton helped write a statement with Richard Mather and Ralph Partridge that was adopted by the New England churches and endorsed by the Massachusetts General Court. This statement, named the Cambridge Platform, introduced the Congregational Method of church government known as “the New England Way.”

John Cotton also wrote numerous sermons, catechism and pamphlets during his career:

♦ Spiritual Milk for Babes, published in 1646
♦ God’s Promise to His Plantation, sermon delivered to the departing Massachusetts Bay Company in 1630
♦ The Keyes of the Kingdom of Heaven
♦ The Way of the Congregational Churches Cleared
♦ The Bloudy Tenent Washed and Made White in the Bloud of the Lamb, pamphlet written in response to Roger Williams The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution

John Cotton’s Death and Burial:

In 1652, while preaching at Harvard College, Cotton caught pneumonia and died. He was buried in tomb with other clergymen at King’s Chapel Burying Ground in Boston, Massachusetts.

John Cotton’s Family and Descendants:

John Cotton married Elizabeth Horrocks in Balsham, England on July 3, 1613. The couple had no children together and Horrocks died in 1631.

Cotton then married a widow named Sarah Hawkred Story in Boston, England on April 25, 1632. Cotton and Story had six children together:

♦ Seaborn Cotton, born at sea on August 12, 1635, married Dorothy Bradstreet, daughter of Ann and Simon Bradstreet
♦ Sariah Cotton, born in Boston, Massachusetts on September 12, 1635, died January of 1650 during a smallpox epidemic.
♦ Elizabeth Cotton, born in Boston, Massachusetts on December 9, 1637, married Jeremiah Eggington.
♦ John Cotton Jr, born in Boston, Massachusetts on March 15, 1640, attended Harvard, married Joanna Rossiet.
♦ Maria Cotton, born in Boston, Massachusetts on February 16, 1642, married Increase Mather, son of Richard Mather. In 1663, Maria and Increase had a son named Cotton Mather who became a prominent minister in Boston.
♦ Rowland Cotton, born in Boston, Massachusetts in December of 1643, died in January of
1650 during a smallpox epidemic.

Cotton’s widow, Sarah, later married the Rev. Richard Mather, father of Increase Mather.

The Antinomian Controversy, 1636-1638: A Documentary History. Edited by David D. Hall. Duke University Press, 1990.
Cotton, John. The Correspondence of John Cotton. UNC Press Books, 2001.
Cotton, John and Enoch Pond. Memoir of John Cotton. Saxton & Miles, 1842.
M’Clure, Alexander Wilson.. The Life of John Cotton.Vol. III, 1870.
LaPlante, Eva. American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman Who Defied the Puritans. HarperSanFrancisco, 2010.
Hutchinson, Thomas. The History of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay. M. Richardson, 1765.
Parkes, Henry Bamford. “John Cotton and Roger Williams Debate Toleration.” The New England Quarterly, Vol. 4, No. 4, Oct. 1931, pp. 735-756.
“Reverend John Cotton (1584-1652).” Cotton Descendants,

About Rebecca Beatrice Brooks

Rebecca Beatrice Brooks is the author and publisher of the History of Massachusetts Blog. Rebecca is a freelance journalist and history lover who got her start in journalism working for small-town newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire after she graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a B.A. in journalism. Visit this site's About page to find out more about Rebecca.

3 thoughts on “Reverend John Cotton: Puritan Reformist

  1. hinchinbrooke

    Sir Henry Vane the Younger had a colourful carreer when he got back to England. He did one thing that is hard to forgive. In the trial and Attainder of The Earl of Strafford, he perjured himself. The lie he told regarding Strafford offering his Irish Army to quell the English, when he actually offered the Irish Army to quell the Scots. It was a blatant lie and led to the Execution of Strafford. The only truly decent minister that Charles I had.
    He negotiated the Solemn League and Covenant.
    Sir Henry then became the most effective support that an army or navy could have. He was responsible for everything that Cromwell needed on his march from Pembroke to Preston (a forced march of 462 miles) he was also responsible for supplying the navy and putting the fear of God into victuallers who supplied poor quality provisions.
    He bacame a ‘Fifth Monarchist’ and believed that he was destined to rule England until the coming of the Messiah.
    He was a member of the Long Parliament and instrumental in an attempt to undo the structure of Government as established with One Ruler and Parliament/s. Vane wanted a Parliament on its own which was not subject to votes, but could choose its own membership. Which is why Cromwell ejected them. Cromwell’s enemy, Clarendon said that if Cromwell had not ejected them it would have taken more blood to remove them that it took to remove the King.
    At the Restoration, Vane was not with the first of the executionees because he hadn’t signed the King’s death warrant but he was regarded as dangerous and he was very instrumental in Strafford’s death.

  2. Amy

    Thank you so much for this information! I am a descendent of Rev. Cotton, and all of my papers tracing my family back to England were lost in the flooding from Hurricane Harvey. I am so grateful to you for not only compiling this information, but for providing the excellent references as well. It’s a tremendous help.

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